Pre-Emption, Disarmament Or Regime Change?
Questions that should be answered before we wage war on Iraq
Holger Jensen
Independent Foreign Affairs Analyst
October 7, 2002

Is President Bush right and the rest of the world wrong about the need, nay urgency, to wage war on Iraq? Is he simply trying to finish Daddy’s unfinished business? Or is it a case of the Israeli tail wagging the American dog?

These troubling questions keep recurring despite the steady drumroll of war talk issuing from the White House, which is why Bush has had so much trouble convincing the United Nations and the U.S. Congress to give him a blank check for invading Iraq.

Casting about for justification, administration officials have, at various times, cited three primary goals – regime change, pre-emption and disarmament.

Regime change is nothing new in our conduct of foreign policy. Latin America and the Caribbean used to be favored hunting grounds for American presidents eager for regime change. Chile, Haiti, Panama, Grenada, El Salvador, Nicaragua and, of course, Cuba are all good examples.

According to a Senate committee report in 1975 there were at least eight CIA-sponsored attempts on the life of Fidel Castro. (Castro says many more.) Castro also was the protagonist of our most embarrassing attemp at regime change, the Bay of Pigs in 1961. However, a generation later, he is still around – our policy of embargo and isolation has been equally ineffective in toppling him and completely at odds with our policy of engagement with China, another repressive regime where we are trying to promote democracy and a free market.

Old timers can remember two early U.S. regime-change successes: Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, both orchestrated by the CIA. Both resulted in the emergence of regimes friendly to the United States but with limited backing at home, partly because of their disdain for human rights.

In Iran, the long-term outcome backfired on Washington. An anti-American Islamic radical regime overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979 and remains to this day. Guatemala, on the other hand, is now a democracy and its old pro-American dictators are history.

But Haiti, a more recent regime change where we dumped a military dictator in favor of a popularly elected leftist priest, has turned out to be a disaster. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who now rules that economic wasteland as viciously as his predecessors, is not only ungrateful but positively hostile to the United States.

Nevertheless, "regime change" is enshrined in 1998 legislation as a cornerstone of our policy toward Iraq. And that does not sit well with the rest of the world.

Few question that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is an evil despot who rules by fear, murders or tortures his opponents and cares not a whit for the well-being of his people – as demonstrated by his disregard for a decade of sanctions that brought untold suffering to ordinary Iraqis while hardly denting the wealth and priveleges of the ruling clique. But, they say, it is up to the Iraqis to overthrow him, not the Americans.

Although most governments backed Bush’s decision to overthrow a government in Afghanistan that was complicit in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of last year, they believe regime change without such provocation would have no basis in international law. Among the Europeans, so often with the United States during times of crisis, only British Prime Minister Tony Blair supports military action against Iraq and he faces considerable opposition within his own government.

In a recent interview with Reuters, International Development Secretary Clare Short said it would be "illegal for the UK to support military action for regime change. We’ve made it absolutely clear that we will abide by international law, and regime change is not a legitimate subject in international law."

More than 160 parliamentarians, most from Blair’s ruling Labor Party, have signed a motion expressing "deep unease" about Britain backing U.S. military strikes on Baghdad. And polls indicate that half the British public opposes going to war.

In the Middle East, where Saddam is both loathed as a regional threat and admired for standing up to the world’s only superpower, all but Israel fear the repercussions. The common nightmare of Iraq’s Arab neighbors is that Saddam’s overthrow will unleash a wave of anti-American hatred and a popular backlash against any government siding with Washington, which puts Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and many of our smaller Gulf oil suppliers at risk.

Iran, Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia also are concerned that a post-war Iraq may disintegrate, with Shi’ite Muslims taking over the south and Kurds controlling the north, leaving a Sunni Muslim-dominated rump in Baghdad. Indeed, the same fear is what prompted Bush Sr. to stop short of marching on Baghdad and toppling Saddam after winning the first Gulf War in 1991.

Saudi Arabia’s rulers, linked to the strict Wahhabi Sunni sect, mortally fear any Shi’ite power center in southern Iraq that could spur dissent among their own Shi’ite minority. U.S. support for Israel in its bloody conflict with the Palestinians has already fueled anti-American sentiment in the kingdom, along with sympathy for Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, mastermind of 9/11.

Ties between Riyadh and Washington came under further strain after a Pentagon adviser labeled Saudi Arabia, the origin of 15 of the 19 hijackers in the suicide assaults, as Washington’s "most dangerous" enemy and a "kernel of evil."

Syria, also deemed a rogue state by Washington, and Iran, which Bush lumped along with Iraq and North Korea in his "axis of evil," fear they could be next in line for "regime change." Branded by the U.S. as a sponsor of terrorism for backing anti-Israel Palestinian groups, Damascus says what the United States really wants is to reshape the whole Middle East by installing puppet regimes friendly to the Jewish state.

Iran, though no friend of Saddam, who fought a bloody eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, fears the encircling prospect of a pro-American regime in Iraq to its west, to match the U.S.-backed government newly installed in Afghanistan to its east.

NATO-member Turkey has jitters about any Iraqi Kurdish lunge for independence, fearing this could revive secessionist aspirations among its own restive Kurds in the southeast. And the king of Jordan, who pursues a delicate balancing act between his U.S. alliance and fears of unrest among his largely anti-American population, has publicly begged Washington not to go to war.

Even Kuwait, occupied by Iraqi troops for seven months, has misgivings. It may gloat when Saddam falls, but fears what he might do as a finale – such as unleashing floods of refugees, chemical or biological attacks, or assaults on oil wells. "We should not be surprised if Iraq fires chemical weapons," Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah said recently.

Lastly, if being a nasty dictator invites American invasion, why pick on Iraq? Although the Pol Pots and Idi Amins of this world are long gone, there are still plenty of nasty dictators out there, including not a few other Arab leaders and most heads of state of the Central Asian republics with whom we forged an alliance for the Afghan war.


So if regime change is unacceptable to the international community, how about pre-emption?

Bush aides say a pre-emptive attack on Iraq is justified because he has weapons of mass destruction, supports terrorism and threatens world peace. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pointed out, we can’t wait for a smoking gun because that means it’s been fired and it would be too late.

Pre-emption itself is nothing new. Many countries, whether they admit it or not, reserve the right to attack first if they fear they are about to be attacked. But pre-emption was never so bluntly stated as in Bush’s new National Security Strategy unveiled Sept. 21. The 35-page document officially ended the military emphasis on deterrence that dominated the Cold War and shifted it to one of pre-emption that Bush first outlined at West Point in June.

"Given the goals of rogue states and terrorists, the United States can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past," it says. "We cannot let our enemies strike first. As a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed."

How long before and on whose sayso is what worries our allies.

Does Saddam really pose a threat to world peace, they ask, and how imminent is that threat? Does he threaten the United States or is he simply a regional threat? His Arab neighbors say they feel less threatened by Saddam than Israel’s Ariel Sharon, so who is really the threat? Are we going after Saddam strictly on Israel’s sayso? And even Israel admits that it considers Iran more of a threat than Iraq, so are we going after the wrong guy here? Or are Iran, and possibly Syria, the next targets of a "pre-emptive" war?

In trying to answer these questions, the Bush administration has delivered a bill of particulars against Saddam that includes al-Qaida terrorist links yet to be confirmed by our own intelligence and weapons he may or may not have. There are a lot of what-ifs in the administration’s case that weaken the argument for pre-emption.

Many of the points Bush made in a much anticipated U.N. speech about the threats posed by Saddam dwelt on his past sins and reports by U.N. weapons inspectors who left Baghdad in 1998. Those same inspectors say there’s not much new information to show that Baghdad has ratcheted up its capabilities enough to warrant immediate military action.

Bush warned the U.N. that Saddam could have nuclear weapons within a year of acquiring fissionable material. And Vice President Dick Cheney has since said that Saddam may acquire nuclear weapons "fairly soon." But a CIA assessment, issued in January says Iraq has done nothing more than "probably [continue] at least low-level theoretical R&D (research and development) associated with its nuclear program."

The Council on Foreign Relations noted that if Bush had any evidence that Iraq had been able to buy or smuggle radioactive material needed to build a nuclear weapon, he would have presented it. He didn’t, and provided no proof that Saddam is anywhere close to getting a nuclear weapon. The Congressional Research Service also maintains that Iraq is "not significantly closer to a nuclear weapon than it was when the inspections ended" four years ago.

Bottom line, no one outside Iraq really knows Saddam’s nuclear capabilities and even if he did acquire fissionable material from one of the former Soviet Republics and did manage to make a bomb, he doesn’t have the delivery system to target the United States.

The chief U.N. weapons inspector, Hans Blix, said last month he had no proof that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. Other inspectors, past and present, are still arguing about what they left behind.

Scott Ritter, the former marine officer who spent seven years hunting and destroying Saddam’s arsenal, insists that "Iraq has been fundamentally disarmed: 90-95% of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capability has been verifiably eliminated. This includes all of the factories used to produce chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and long-range ballistic missiles; the associated equipment of these factories; and the vast majority of the products coming out of these factories."

But two other inspectors testified to Congress, that Saddam may have as much as three tons of chemical and biological agents still unaccounted for.

Here it should be noted that Iraq’s bioweapons program got its start with help from Uncle Sam when Saddam was still a friend of ours. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent samples directly to several Iraqi sites that U.N. weapons inspectors later determined were part of Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program, according to CDC and congressional records from the early 1990s. Iraq had ordered the samples, claiming it needed them for legitimate medical research.

The CDC and a biological sample company, the American Type Culture Collection, sent strains of all the germs Iraq used to make weapons, including anthrax, the bacteria that makes botulinum toxin and the germs that cause gas gangrene. Iraq also got samples of other deadly pathogens, including the West Nile virus.

The transfers came in the 1980s, when the United States supported Iraq in its war against Iran. They were detailed in a 1994 Senate Banking Committee report and a 1995 follow-up letter from the CDC to the Senate.

The exports were legal at the time and approved under a program administered by the Commerce Department.

"I don’t think it would be accurate to say the United States government deliberately provided seed stocks to the Iraqis’ biological weapons programs," Jonathan Tucker, a former U.N. biological weapons inspector, told the Associated Press. "But they did deliver samples that Iraq said had a legitimate public health purpose, which I think was naive to believe, even at the time."

Iraq was, after all, using those weapons against Iran. And the disclosures put the United States in the uncomfortable position of having provided the key ingredients of an arsenal that Bush now wants to go to war to destroy – a point made by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., when he entered the documents into the Congressional Record this month.

Scientists point out that even if Saddam kept a stock of chemical and biological agents, they may have degraded by now. And if he has somehow preserved them, or renewed them, he still has no delivery system short of giving them to terrorists to smuggle into the United States. So far, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, there is no verifiable linkage between Saddam and al Qaeda despite administration efforts to provide such a link.

Publicly, the Bush team has been touting reports that al-Qaida operatives found refuge in Baghdad and that Iraq once helped them develop chemical weapons. Privately, U.S. intelligence sources say al-Qaida members are believed to be simply moving through Iraq en route to their home countries and those that have taken refuge in Iraq are in the Kurdish-controlled north, beyond Saddam’s control and under the protective umbrella of U.S. and British air strikes in the no-flight zone.

This has not stopped Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, from alleging that al-Qaida operatives have had a direct relationship with the Iraqi government. "There clearly are contacts between al-Qaida and Iraq that can be documented," she said.

But she has provided no documentation.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press that evidence for such linkage is tenuous, based on sources of varying reliability. Rumsfeld counters that "Iraq’s ties to terrorist networks are long-standing." But in U.S. intelligence circles, Syria and Iran are regarded as more active sponsors of terrorism than Iraq.

One group Iraq does have ties with is quite active in Washington, even though it’s on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. That group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, advocates the violent overthrow of the Islamic government in Tehran. It recently held a news conference two blocks from the White House.

Pre-emption also causes problems for NATO, because offensive action runs contrary to the founding principles of the U.S.-led alliance.

Article V of the Washington Treaty under which NATO was established in 1949 states that an armed attack against one ally or more in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack on all, legitimising defensive action. But this does not legitimize pre-emptive action, and NATO Secretary-General George Robertson has made it clear that the alliance will keep deterrence as its first option.

"We do not go out looking for problems to solve," he said in June after Rumsfeld suggested that unconventional threats justify pre-emptive war.

Part I – Part IIPart III

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